John Coles was involved in a collision at Heathrow Airport
The inquest into the death British Airways engineer who died following a collision between two vehicles within Heathrow Airport has concluded that background visual interference was a contributory factor in the death, a conclusion which could have an impact across the aviation sector.
Following a five-day hearing in front of a jury, the Assistant Coroner, Mr Richard Furniss, told the court that John Coles’ death was accidental and that he had died at Heathrow Airport.
Mr Coles was 44 years old when he died on the 14th of February 2018. Mr Coles, who worked for British Airways, was driving a Renault Kangoo van at an uncontrolled crossing within the defined area of Heathrow Airport near Terminal 5 when his vehicle was in collision with a Toyota Hilux safety vehicle driven by a Heathrow Airport employee, Geoffrey Foden.
The Jury agreed that Mr Foden hadn’t seen the Renault Kangoo due to visual interference caused by the night-time environment.
The findings could have much wider implications for the night-time use of uncontrolled crossings at night at airports worldwide.
In their submissions, Heathrow Airports Limited (HAL) said they would now look at these crossings and consider licensing requirements for those using them.
A decision on whether the coroner would be writing prevention of future deaths reports to the organisations in a position to take action to reduce the risk would be delayed to a later date.
There are currently 17 of these crossings at Heathrow Airport. At the time of Mr Coles’ death, there were 25 uncontrolled crossings at the airport.
The family and the union, Unite, have now called on Heathrow Airports Limited, who run Heathrow, to implement the improvements immediately to prevent further deaths.
Mark Coles, John’s brother, said: “These promises for improvements made today at the inquest cannot simply be to pacify the coroner. They must be promises for real change. The jury has been clear that the night-time environment caused visual interference, which caused my brother’s death.
“As a family, we will hold HAL’s feet to the fire until they make these changes to protect all those working at Heathrow Airport.
Mr Coles' van was hit on the side in the collision at over 40mph, causing significant damage and intrusion into his vehicle. He exited the vehicle, complaining of chest pains.
PC Geoghegan, who investigated the collision and gave evidence to the inquest, said that having recreated the conditions around the collision, it was his opinion that Mr Foden would have had a clear line of sight of Mr Coles' vehicle for approximately nine or ten seconds on the approach to the uncontrolled crossing.
However, PC Geoghegan said several factors were present on the day of the collision that caused background visual interference.
These factors included the sky's darkness at the time of day the incident occurred. The illumination from the nearby terminal building and the presence of aircraft with flashing lights caused difficulties in identifying a Renault Kangoo on the crossing.
At or around 6:58 am, an hour after the collision, Mr Coles collapsed and never recovered consciousness.
On the first day of the inquest, Dr. Hiam Ali, a pathologist, stated that Mr. Coles died from a ruptured aorta, which resulted from the fracture of his ribs during the collision.
Dr. Ali explained to the jury that the only reason Mr. Coles could live for an hour post-crash was likely because the rib that tore his aorta had possibly embedded itself, which would have initially slowed down the bleeding.
The inquest over five days heard from various witnesses, including Mr Foden, members of the emergency services who attended to Mr Coles on the day, members of Heathrow’s Airport air safety division, and the London Ambulance Service.
Mr Coles was a member of the Unite union, and legal representation for his family at the inquest is provided by Thompsons Solicitors, who provide legal services to all Unite members and their families.
Liam Kelly, regional legal coordinator at Unite the Union, said: “Ensuring the well-being of our members and all Heathrow Airport employees is of utmost significance, and they must be able to return home safely after each shift.
“We will strive to hold Heathrow Airports Limited accountable for implementing the promised safety improvements. If there is any failure in delivering these crucial changes, we will defend our members' interests, as safety is non-negotiable.
Kam Singh from Thompsons Solicitors, who represented the Coles family, said: “After five and a half years of waiting, the family have finally got the information that they were denied for all this time.
“This inquest has finally made HAL realise they need to improve health and safety. However, it has taken over five years, and John’s mother is not here to hear the evidence of how her son died, having died last year.
“John was a member of the Unite union, this enabled John’s family to have the legal support necessary to be represented at this inquest and for the civil claim which was recently resolved.”